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Gelber and Aaronberg Stake Out Differences

Two Democratic senators running for attorney general kept their promise to refrain from bloodying each other at their debate Sunday before 1,000 Democrats at the state party conference.

But Sens. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach and Dave Aronberg of Greenacres wrestled over private school vouchers, growth management, red-light cameras, and their work experience, even as they vowed that electing a Democrat to the Cabinet post was paramount.

“These guys have been in control and they’ve driven this state into a ditch,” Gelber said of Florida’s Republican leadership. “And like any responsible parent, we have to say, ‘it’s time to hand over the keys.’”

Gelber, a former assistant U.S. Attorney in Miami, touted his experience helping lead an office of 200 attorneys on a range of civil rights, fraud and corruption cases.

Aronberg, a former assistant attorney general under Democrat Bob Butterworth, said the post was “his dream job,” and “life’s ambition.”

He also blistered Republicans holding the job since Butterworth -- now-Gov. Charlie Crist, and Attorney General Bill McCollum -- as more interested in higher office than helping Floridians.

“We’ve seen a revolving door of politicians,” Aronberg said.

Gelber lit what amounted to the only fireworks of the hour-long exchange. He accused Aronberg of supporting private school vouchers – long opposed by the state’s largest teachers’ union – and a growth management overhaul in last spring’s session denounced by environmentalists.

Aronberg was among four Senate Democrats supporting legislation (HB 453) that renewed the state’s $118 million corporate-income tax credit voucher program, giving companies a tax break when they contribute to the program.

The legislation allowed insurance companies to play a larger role in the program through their premium taxes. The corporate voucher program, launched during the administration of Republican Jeb Bush, sends more than 20,000 low-income students to private schools.

Gelber and eight other Senate Democrats voted against the measure. But Aronberg defended his stance, insisting, “I have never voted to expand vouchers.”

Similarly, Aronberg said his support for the growth management legislation (SB 360) was aimed at giving local governments more control over development issues in their community.

The measure eased road-building requirements which developers and some local government officials say were hindering projects aimed at spurring construction in city centers and crumbling urban neighborhoods. Opponents, though, said it stripped away hard-won controls over urban sprawl.

The two also broke over red-light cameras.

Gelber supported unsuccessful legislation allowing cities to install the devices, which now are being challenged by a lawsuit against those communities which have gone ahead with the cameras.

Aronberg said the cameras were the brainchild of companies and governments looking to make money on them.

“Just follow the money and you’ll see where the red light camera motivation came from,” Aronberg said.

Aronberg also pledged to abolish the state’s ban on adoption by same-sex marriage couples, calling the prohibition, “immoral discrimination.”

Neither candidate mentioned who is shaping up as the leading Republican in the attorney general’s race – Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp.

But McCollum, the current office-holder, drew plenty of fire from both contenders for not doing enough to clamp-down on Medicaid fraud, civil rights violations, prescription drug abuse and youth crime – areas where both Democrats said they will heighten focus.

Both also said it was time for the attorney general to demand tougher regulations on mysterious political fund-raising committees and demand that the office have more authority to launch investigations into suspected public corruption at the state and local level.

Gelber pointed out that he wants the Legislature to put on next year’s ballot a measure subjecting state lawmakers to the same open-meetings and public-records standards that city and county governments face.

Both Aronberg and Gelber also conceded that sex-offender legislation approved by lawmakers several years ago has backfired by reducing housing opportunities for these criminals and forcing some into equally threatening areas – citing a homeless encampment under a major causeway in Miami.

But neither candidate said they had the answers.

“We both want to fix the law,” Gelber said. “But we’ve got to protect our children and our families and we’ve got to do it right.”

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